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Forrest for the Trees

Sen. Dan Patrick
Patrick Michels
Sen. Dan Patrick

Even as the religious right has slipped into a state of unplanned obsolescence on gay rights, marijuana legalization and other culture-war issues, it’s doing better than ever on the abortion front. Yes, Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. And anti-abortion activists—increasingly dominated by absolutists—are unlikely to rest until the U.S. Supreme Court guts Roe. Meanwhile, at the state level, the movement is notching a string of impressive victories in legislatures across the country. In all, 24 states enacted 52 anti-abortion measures in 2013, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. Almost 90 percent of U.S. counties lack an abortion provider, according to the Guttmacher Institute—a figure that’s likely to grow as new measures force clinics to close.

Of course, most Observer readers are familiar with the explosive fight this summer over sweeping anti-abortion legislation at the Texas Legislature. It was a thing to behold: a stirring of the pot the likes of which hasn’t been seen in left-leaning Texas politics for a long time. The Wendy Davis filibuster. The unruly mob. The orange shirts versus the blue shirts. Cecile Richards. David Dewhurst. If you were there, you saw a remarkable event. But the pro-choice side lost. House Bill 2, Texas’ anti-abortion law, is now in effect, though the legal challenge to the law will likely land at the Supreme Court. Since then, as many as one-third of all abortion clinics in Texas have closed and abortions after 20 weeks have been banned.

During the abortion debate in Austin, proponents of HB 2 were all singing from the same hymnal. The legislation was all about “the health and safety of the mother,” they repeated to the point of tedium.

Occasionally, legislators backing the bill would veer off the attorney-engineered talking points regarding ambulatory surgical center standards and the finer points of administering abortion-inducing drugs. In those moments, the facade of this being a “policy debate” would crumble, and we’d see it for what it was: a struggle over fundamentally different value systems.

For example, as the House kicked off a floor debate, bill author and Republican Rep. Jodie Laubenberg propped a pair of baby shoes on the dais.

But this debate was about more than just abortion. The legislation was based on far-right religious dogma. You could see the connections if you were looking for them. At a rally outside the Capitol in early July, Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, preached that HB 2 was a battle “between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan.”

Lawmakers, for the most part, kept the God talk under wraps, perhaps mindful that the courts might have a problem with Jeremiah 1:5 as the basis for messing with a constitutional right.

But it’s been trickling out ever since. State Sen. Dan Patrick, who’s forever finding new ways to drive nails into his soft palms, was the first. On the night HB 2 cleared the Texas Senate, he gave a speech in which he asked (and answered) the question, “How would God vote tonight if he were here?”

Then, in January, the evangelical World magazine detailed the depths of the religious fervor around HB 2. “I was on the side of life and the other side was death,” Laubenberg, the bill’s author, told World. “It wasn’t my bill. It was God’s bill.” Her colleague Rep. Jonathan Stickland—last seen mugging in his Capitol office for The New York Times, a firearm strapped to his girth—took it a step further. “There were times when I thought, ‘There are probably demons in this room.’”

If you believe your bill is God’s will; if you literally demonize your opponents; if you think God keeps a voting scorecard … where does this leave our politics? The left has its fools and demagogues, to be sure, but secular politics does not make its enemies into Beelzebub.

Theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr argued that one of the reasons for separation of church and state is that if a religion is good, then the state ought not to interfere with it, and if a religion is bad, then it ought not to interfere with the state. And he defined a “bad religion” as “one that gives an ultimate sanctity to some particular cause.”

Stickland, Laubenberg and Patrick are not the high priests of the Texas GOP. But their agenda, dangerously entangled in fundamentalism, is now the gospel of the state. God save us.

Waste Control Specialists site
Waste Control Specialists
WCS site

Even as a low-level radioactive waste dump grows in West Texas, lawmakers are pondering the possibility of making Texas the home to at least some of the nation’s immense stockpile of “high-level” radioactive waste. Speaker of the House Joe Straus charged the House Committee on Environmental Regulation with studying “the disposal of high-level radioactive waste in Texas” and to make recommendations on how to permit a disposal or “interim storage facility.” Currently, the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants have nowhere to send their spent fuel rods, after Nevada’s controversial Yucca Mountain site was scuttled.

Environmentalists reacted to Straus’ directive with palpable anger.

“It’s idiotic to even consider disposing of high-level radioactive waste in Texas,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen. “Other states have rejected having high-level radioactive waste dumped on them. Texas shouldn’t even be talking about the possibility. It’s all risk and very little reward for Texans.”

It was not immediately clear if Straus has Waste Control Specialists’ dump site near Andrews, Texas, in mind or a different project. Notably, an Austin-based company is pursuing a plan to store high-level waste near Big Spring. Owned by Dallas GOP billionaire Harold Simmons, who died last year, Waste Control has long angled to become the nation’s one-stop site for radioactive and hazardous waste. Lubricated with Simmons’ political donations and high-powered lobbyists, the state of Texas has generally allowed Waste Control to keep expanding the dump, despite concerns that it lies perilously close to water tables.

But the company has been mum about plans, if any, for high-level waste. An email to company spokesman Chuck McDonald was not immediately returned.

However, an email obtained by the Observer shows that Waste Control has its eyes on new streams of radioactive waste currently banned by the state.

In October, a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality staffer wrote to her superior, Bobby Janecka, that “WCS is presenting that they are going to request to dispose of greater than class c [radioactive waste]. … They are also saying they expect us to approve [depleted uranium] may 2014.”

(Notably, Janecka was chief of staff to state Rep. Tryon Lewis, the Republican who represents Andrews and has authored legislation that benefits Waste Control.)

Generally, low-level radioactive wastes are classified as Class A, B or C, with “C” being the most radioactive and long-lived. “Greater than Class C” waste is another grouping, encompassing the most dangerous of so-called low-level radioactive waste.

Depleted uranium is being generated in large quantities at a uranium enrichment plant next door to the Waste Control dump in Eunice, New Mexico. Both depleted uranium and Greater than Class C fall into a regulatory gray area between “low-level” and “high-level” radioactive waste. It appears that the interim charge is probably referring to spent nuclear fuel rods—the stuff once slated for Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

The interim study charge could also apply to another proposed radioactive waste facility, one that’s been flying under the radar for some time. Austin-based AFCI Texas has been in talks with local, state and federal officials about building an “interim” storage facility near Big Spring for spent nuclear fuel. AFCI is co-owned by Bill Jones, a Rick Perry ally who serves on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department board.

Reached by phone today, AFCI co-owner Monty Humble, said he was surprised by the interim charge.

“It’s ironic you’re asking because I’m trying to figure out where the heck it came from too,” Humble said. “I’ll be truthful and say we’re intensely interested in the question but I have no idea where that charge came from.”

Humble said the interim charge is “broader” than what they’ve been proposing. AFCI said it’s only looking at storing high-level radioactive waste, not burying or disposing of it, though he wouldn’t rule that out either.

Comptroller Glenn Hegar
Glenn Hegar

While Rep. Steve “Where (and What) in the World is He?” Stockman was on his magical mystery tour, we had lots of folks working overtime to fill the WTF deficit. This was truly a week for the WTF books. Let’s get to it.

The first televised lieutenant governor’s debate alone brought us a veritable avalanche of red meat, as the four men gathered at the far right end of the political spectrum. Keep Marlise Muñoz on life support! Teach creationism in schools! Ban all abortions!

As usual, state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) found a way to best his opponents in the vainglorious rhetoric department. Asked about teaching creationism in public schools, he insulted the intelligence of the kiddos:

“Our children must really be confused. We want them to go to school on Sunday and we teach them about Jesus Christ and then they go to school on Monday—they can’t pray, they can’t learn about creationism. They must really be confused.”

“When it comes to creationism, not only should it be taught, it should be triumphed, it should be heralded.”

And after endorsing campus carry and open carry, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson finally found a limit to his Second Amendment enthusiasm:

“The one venue that I believe maybe handguns shouldn’t be there—although it kinda enhances the quality of the service—is a bar.”

The Lady was certainly shooting from the hip again this week. On her entertaining Facebook page, State Board of Education candidate Lady Theresa Thombs opined on evolution.

“To believe in evolution is a larger fairy tale. Darwin admitted his science was a mistake. If evolution were true, why is it with the vast amount of knowledge we have acquired through science, we have not evolved into a different species?”

Also: If dolphins are so smart, then how come they’re stuck in the ocean?

And it would be an odd week if a Texas congressman didn’t say or do something crazy. And what better time to thumb a tweet than during the State of the Union.  U.S. Congressman Randy Weber is keepin’ it real in Ron Paul’s old district. Just an hour before the State of the Union, Weber warmed his Twitter followers up with some hardcore Obama-bashing, punning that would make O. Henry turn in his grave (“a line” … “A-Lying”) and some unintentionally hilarious misspellings.

Finally, state Sen. Glenn Hegar is running for comptroller—the statewide office that deals with budgets, taxes and revenue projections. But credit to Hegar for finding a way to tape himself firing a fully-automatic weapon because… Well, the name of the video is “Freedom.”

Four candidates for lt. gov.
Four candidates for lt. gov.

One of the afflictions of the politics beat is that conflict is coveted and covered, even when the story is about consensus. Reporters naturally gravitate toward (and try to create) disagreements among candidates and parties. “Fight! Fight! Fight” is the mantra. That’s not a bad instinct, but what happens when all the candidates agree on something—and that something is extreme?

We have a lieutenant governor’s race on the GOP side in which the four candidates agree on certain things that not so long ago were confined to the political fringe. They are even now not mainstream beliefs (defined roughly as beliefs held by a majority or large plurality of the public) but have become rapidly de rigueur in Republican primaries. To wit:

At a televised debate this week, all four candidates (David Dewhurst, Dan Patrick, Jerry Patterson and Todd Staples) agreed that abortions should be banned even in cases of rape or incest. It was not clear if any of them would make exceptions even for the life of the mother.

Journalist Peggy Fikac asked each of them, “Do you believe that a woman should be able to choose abortion in cases of rape and incest?” and then later followed up to make sure she had a clear answer.

TODD STAPLES: “I believe that abortion should never be used as a form of birth control.”

“In extreme cases where a mother’s life is in danger then you can have a conversation about that circumstance. But as a matter of law we need to promote life.”

DAVID DEWHURST: “I believe strongly that the life of the mother has to be protected. That’s why if there’s a question about the life of the mother, I’m supportive.”

(He later made clear that he opposes exceptions for rape and incest.)

JERRY PATTERSON: “My answer is that either it is life or it’s not. To say that we have an unborn child that is the result of a rape and somehow that’s less life-y, life-like or inferior to the life that was through a natural, non-catastrophic event like that doesn’t make any sense… I do not support exceptions for rape or incest.”

DAN PATRICK: “The only exception—the only exception—would be if the life of the mother is truly endangered for that doctor and that family to make that decision of the mother and the baby. … In those rare circumstances where the life of the mother is on the line, most mothers say let my baby live.”

In other words, the likely next lieutenant governor of Texas has staked out the most extreme position possible on abortion. And notably, it’s not one shared by very many people, including Republicans. As Jim Henson and Joshua Blank with the Texas Tribune noted yesterday, “only 16 percent of Republicans (compared to 12 percent of Texans overall) said that abortion should never be permitted.”

In that Texas Tribune/UT poll, 37 percent of Texas Republicans thought abortion should either be “generally legal” or “always legal”—a group twice the size that of the absolutist position. And 41 percent took the position that abortion should be banned except in cases of rape, incest or when pregnancy endangers the mother’s life. Any way you slice the data, the Republican candidates for lieutenant governor are a minority of a minority of a minority.

To prove their bona fides, all four men also took the position that Marlise Muñoz—the brain-dead pregnant Fort Worth woman who was kept on life support against her family’s wishes—should’ve been kept alive as an incubator for her 14-week-old fetus.

And their extreme positions weren’t limited to abortion. All four men have said that creationism, which has been thoroughly discredited in the courts and certainly in the sciences, should be taught in school. Their only point of disagreement was how it should be taught.

TODD STAPLES: “I believe that creationism can be taught in our public schools in social studies if it violates what the courts have said as a science because it is something that most Texans believe in.”

DAVID DEWHURST: “I am fine with teaching creationism, intelligent design and evolution. And then let the students… decide for themselves which one of the three they believe in.”

Dewhurst apparently makes a distinction between creationism and intelligent design, though the courts have seen through that ruse, agreeing that intelligent design is little more than creationism by another name.

Dan Patrick went even further, inveighing against the separation of church and state and leaving out altogether the usual canards about teaching creationism alongside evolution.

PATRICK: “Our children must really be confused. We want them to go to school on Sunday and we teach them about Jesus Christ and then they go to school on Monday—they can’t pray they can’t learn about creationism. They must really be confused.”

“When it comes to creationism, not only should it be taught, it should be triumphed, it should be heralded.”

Jerry Patterson was the least retrograde, holding open the possibility that creationism should perhaps be taught in a comparative religion class. But he balanced that out by staking out the most far-right position possible on guns. Asked if there should be any restrictions of any kind, Patterson said, “The one venue that I believe maybe handguns shouldn’t be there—although it kinda enhances the quality of the service—is a bar.”

To alter Barry Goldwater’s words, “Extremism in the defense of winning is no vice.”

After the warmest year on record for Texas, 2012, and the third-warmest year, 2011, last year provided a brief respite from the heat. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Texas saw near-normal temperatures in 2013. The average temperature for the year was 65.1 Fahrenheit, or 0.1 F warmer than normal.

So has global warming stopped? Not at all. Year-to-year fluctuations in temperature are expected due to natural variability in the climate system, especially at a regional level, said Andrew Dressler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M.

“One year (or even a decade) doesn’t tell you much,” he wrote in an email. “Look at the last 30 years and it’s pretty clear what’s happening.”

The period from 2009 to 2013 was the warmest five-year stretch ever on record for Texas, according to Victor Murphy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Five-year rolling average of temperatures, Texas, 1895-2013
Victor Murphy, National Weather Service
Five-year rolling average of temperatures, Texas, 1895-2013

And of course it’s called *global* warming, not what happened at my house last week, as Ted Cruz and Barry Smitherman seem to believe.

Although the U.S. endured some bitterly cold weather in December, globally it was actually the third-warmest December on record.

december 2013 global temps

And 2013 was hardly a cool year overall for the United States and the planet.

In the continental U.S., the average temperature of 52.4 F was 0.3 F above the 20th century average and was tied with 1980 as the 37th warmest year, out of a 119-year record.

Globally, 2013 tied with 2003 as the 4th warmest year, according to NOAA. (Seventh according to NASA, which takes a slightly different approach.) It was the 37th consecutive year with temperatures above the 20th century average.

Residents of Azle and surrounding areas protest wastewater injection wells at a Texas Railroad Commission hearing in Austin.
Forrest Wilder
Residents of Azle and surrounding areas protest wastewater injection wells at a Texas Railroad Commission hearing in Austin.

The North Texas citizens at the Texas Railroad Commission hearing this morning tried to make it as simple as possible: For as long as anyone could remember, there hadn’t been earthquakes in Azle and surrounding areas. Then the fracking boom took off and the wastewater injection wells went in. Soon the earthquakes started, more than 30 in just the past few months, rattling homes and nerves. A considerable amount of research, including work by SMU scientists, links wastewater injection wells to earthquakes.

“No disrespect, but this isn’t rocket science here,” said Linda Stokes, the mayor of Reno, a small town 20 miles northwest of downtown Fort Worth. “Common sense tells you the wells are playing a big role in this.”

And just in case the rocket science theme wasn’t emphasized enough, a bona fide rocket scientist, Gale Wood of Azle, took his turn at the mic.

“It really does not take a rocket scientist to conclude that in certain geologically sensitive areas, the pumping of fluids is the probable cause of earthquakes,” Wood said. “There has been enough data collected over the last few years to support this statement.”

People in the Azle area have grown increasingly angry at the Texas Railroad Commission, which has pledged to hire a seismologist to study the issue, but has refused to shut down the suspect injection wells. Almost 1,000 people attended a raucous Jan. 2 meeting in Azle, organized by Railroad Commissioner David Porter. Residents asked the commission for a 90-day moratorium on wastewater injections in the Azle area—a call reiterated today.

Mack Smith, 72, described being woken up in the middle of the night by a recent quake and grabbing onto his bed to keep from being knocked to the floor. “Just give us some peace,” Smith said. “Stop the injection wells for a period of time.”

One advantage of a moratorium, citizens argued, would be to see if the earthquakes stop or diminish.

But commissioners, including Republican Chairman Barry Smitherman, who is running for Texas attorney general, made it clear that they have no plans to do so. Smitherman mentioned several times today that two of the suspect injection wells closest to the quake epicenter in Azle have seen reductions in the amount of fluids injected even as earthquake activity continues.

“If it had ramped up and continued to ramp up, then that might’ve been the culprit,” Smitherman said. Smitherman seemed to be suggesting that the frequency of earthquakes is linked to the rate of fluid injection. However, as NPR-StateImpact Texas has reported, the more important factor may be the cumulative total of wastewater injected.

While touting the benefits of fracking—and standing behind a weirdly technical definition of fracking to avoid making a connection between the hydraulic fracturing process and the disposal of the wastewater that results—Smitherman would promise only to study the issue more.

“We are still investigating the connection, we want to find out what the connection is, if any,” he said. “Once we find out, then we can hope to take additional steps.”

Meanwhile, folks in Azle are trying to make the best of it. One man, who described himself as “Santa Claus trying to do Elvis,” played a version of “All Shook Up”:

I’m in Azle,
I’m all shook up
My hands are shaking
And my knees are weak
My roof’s falling in and I’m doing my best
It hurts so much
It scares me to death
I’m in Azle, I’m all shook up

Plenty of his neighbors sang along today.

Louie Gohmert
Louie Gohmert

Another week, another batch of WTF.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Godwin’s law: the proposition, generally speaking, that if an online argument runs on long enough, someone will inevitably make a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis.

In the spirit of Godwin, I propose Louie’s law: Given enough time—say, five minutes—Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-Deep, Deeper, Deepest East Texas) will inevitably say something head-scratchingly ignorant about gay folks. He just can’t help it.

This week, Uncle Louie recommends sex ed for jurists; the Lady rears her head again; and we meet the new Secretary of State’s husband.

Ladies first. Last week we introduced you to Lady (she’s knighted; I have a star named after me) Theresa Thombs, who’s running for the State Board of Education on a You-May-Have-Come-From-a-Monkey-But-I-Sure-Didn’t platform. The Lady is back this week, thanks to her ongoing obsession with Satan and some sweet illustration skillz. In a first for WTFF, we will not quote so much as show. Behold, the Lady’s latest campaign missive, via Facebook:

Lady Theresa Thombs takes on the devil. Again.
via Facebook
Lady Theresa Thombs takes on the devil. Again.


The Lady’s all Thombs.

We leave the Lady to meet a real Gentleman. In December, Rick Perry helped swear in his new secretary of state, Nandita Berry. Usually the appointment of a new secretary of state—quick, name the previous Texas SOS—is a mundane affair. But Berry isn’t just a corporate attorney or the first Indian-American to serve in that office. She’s also married to B-list right-wing radio host Michael Berry, who specializes in both gay-bashing and gay-bar-attending and has patriotically called for mosques to be blown up. Anyway, he was asked by a Houston blogger if he’d need to tone it down now that his wife was in a position of authority.

He responded thusly:

 “She’s the Secretary of State, I’m the Czar of Talk Radio. Only angry libtard supposed feminists would ever blame her for what someone else says.”

It’s funny, we assume, because it’s “liberal” plus “retard.”

Finally, that brings us at long last to Uncle Louie. Asked what he thought about federal judges striking down bans on same-sex marriage, Louie’s mind immediately leapt to the mechanics of gay sex.

“They need some basic plumbing lessons.”

I feel bad for this small business-owner in San Diego.

Texas Observer
"Heavy Metal," Texas Observer, August 2012

Because of a little-noticed state law passed in 2011, one of the state’s most brazen polluters received a slap on the wrist for a string of serious environmental and safety blunders.

Gulf Chemical and Metallurgical—a company in Freeport that extracts metal from spent refinery catalysts and has a criminal record—was facing a $1.3 million penalty for its violations, including a 2011 incident in which a kind of chemical “magma” erupted from the plant’s roaster stacks and rained down on contractors and state inspectors, burning one person. But yesterday the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s three commissioners signed off on a deal imposing just a $300,000 fine.

“My hope is that this signals a turning point in the company’s operations and I guess I’m somewhat optimistic that we’re seeing some signs of that,” said TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw, a Perry appointee with a near-perfect record of siding with industry.

Freeport resident Melanie Oldham, the only citizen to testify before the TCEQ, pleaded with the commissioners to delay the decision.

“Ironically Gulf Chemical has taken toxic spent catalysts with heavy metals—arsenic, vanadium, chromium, cobalt, lead, nickel as well as benzene and sulfur—and they have recycled this dirty spent catalyst into the air, water and soil of the citizens of Freeport, Texas,” she said. The company, she said, has “a terrible compliance history for 30 years,” making the $300,000 penalty “inappropriate.”

The agency’s staff had recommended the large penalty, in part, because of the company’s criminal history. As detailed in this 2012 Observer cover story, Gulf Chemical polluted the air, water and soil of nearby neighborhoods for nearly four decades with heavy metals including arsenic and nickel, wantonly flouting state law even as regional investigators pleaded with Austin to take action. The facility was literally held together by duct tape, a fact noted in a criminal investigation that led the company to plead guilty to 11 felony charges for violating state environmental law.

The backstory here is that in 2011 the Texas Legislature passed a “sunset” bill reauthorizing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Environmentalists had convinced lawmakers to give the agency a bigger stick to punish wrongdoers, increasing the maximum base penalty from $10,000 to $25,000 a day. But at the same time, with little notice or objection, the bill’s author Rep. Wayne Smith (R-Baytown) tacked on an amendment limiting TCEQ’s ability to consider a company’s environmental track record when calculating the fine. Previously, TCEQ could “enhance” a penalty by tripling, quadrupling—or, in the case of Gulf Chemical—increasing the base penalty by 753 percent. The Smith provision caps that enhancement at just 100 percent of the base penalty. Nothing in the law requires TCEQ to consider how much Gulf Chemical may have profited by violating environmental standards.

Wayne Smith (left) with speaker of the House Joe Straus
Wayne Smith via
Wayne Smith (left) with speaker of the House Joe Straus

“It didn’t come out of thin air,” said Cyrus Reed of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. “We knew about it. We were opposed to it.” Still, environmentalists thought its impact would be small, given TCEQ’s lousy track record of punishing repeat violators in the past.

Even though the bill didn’t go into effect until September 1, 2011, an administrative law judge agreed with Gulf Chemical’s lawyers that the Smith provision—and only the Smith provision—applied retroactively.

Yesterday, a TCEQ attorney said the agency did not agree with the judge’s ruling but decided to settle for the smaller fine. The settlement approved yesterday also includes requirements for the company to, among other things, clean up an illegal pond—discovered by investigators in 2006—filled with a hazardous byproduct of the Gulf Chemical plant.

A lawyer for the company, Joe Knight, noted that the company had paid a $2.75 million criminal fine, a $7.5 million fine as part of a civil settlement with the Texas attorney general and has spent roughly $40 million brining the plant’s environmental controls up to date. “Certainly this deal was no sweetheart deal,” he said.

Although the Gulf Chemical case is somewhat unusual, Reed said the compliance penalty cap would likely reduce fines for other companies.

Lady Theresa Thombs
via Facebook
Lady Theresa Thombs

Update: After filing WTF Friday, we found a stunner from Rep. Jonathan Stickland—a Bedford tea party Republican who struck this stunning pose for the New York Times last year. In an article about anti-abortion causes in the evangelical World magazine, Stickland said of the summer’s pro-choice rallies at the Capitol, “There were times when I thought, ‘there are probably demons in this room.’”

Not to be outdone, the author of House Bill 2—the anti-abortion bill that led to the closure of one-third of abortion facilities in Texas—had this to say about who was behind her legislation:

“I knew God would prevail,” Laubenberg said: “I was on the side of life and the other side was death. It wasn’t my bill. It was God’s bill.”

Original story: If, for the past few weeks, your world has seemed suspiciously free of wingnuts, weird tea partiers and slimy politicians, that’s only because WTF Friday has been on hiatus during the War on Christmas. We are back at WTF HQ now, ears to the ground, listening for the crazy shit our politicos say. They have not disappointed us. In this week’s edition we  explore soshulism and Chuck E. Cheese with a lady named Lady, perform literary exegesis with Barry Smitherman and check in on—who else?—Ted Cruz.

Yep, 2014 is gonna be a helluva year.

H.L. Mencken has written that “democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.” Don’t tell that to State Board of Education candidate Lady Theresa Thombs, who really deserves an entire WTF Friday devoted just to her.

Before we get started, here is a suggested soundtrack for the post: Lady’s singing of a song titled “God Bless America… Again.”

At a candidate forum this week, the Lady—who explained in this podcast that she has been knighted by something called the Sovereign Order of the Knights of Justice—explained her position on evolution:

Thombs had said she wanted history lessons written by “experts, not people from some socialist higher education.”

She went on: “We know we didn’t come from monkeys!”

The Lady also “went medieval” (in the words of Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy) on her opponent, accusing him being unqualified for the job.

Then, calling him “inexperienced,” she said in an accusatory tone, “His real experience in management is — Chuck E. Cheese!”

On Twitter she went after that most influential of Texas voting blocs: Satanists.

Tweet from Lady Theresa Thombs
Tweet from Lady Theresa Thombs

(Note to opposition researchers: It appears the Sovereign Order of the Knights of Justice is friendly toward… THE UNITED NATIONS!!!!)

Meanwhile, Texas Railroad Chairman, author of If Jesus were an Investment Bankerand Texas Attorney General candidate Barry Smitherman joined anti-CSCOPE activists Alice Linahan and Rebecca Forest for an hour-longhard-hitting interview infomercial in Arlington. Smitherman spent a good bit of time cheerleading for the fossil fuel industries (a prerequisite for the Texas Railroad Commission, it seems) while underscoring his belief that seasonal weather covering a few percent of the planet’s surface area is all the proof you need that global warming is an elaborate hoax carried out by the planet’s scientists.

“Now they call it climate change because the earth is not warming. In fact up here in North Texas we know the earth is not warming. It was bitterly cold the last four or five days.”

Smitherman also explained why he pulled his daughter out of public school over To Kill a Mockingbird. (The Observer broke the story in September that Smitherman wrote a letter to his daughter’s teacher objecting to the labeling of hate groups, including neo-Nazi organizations, as hate groups.)

“When I read that book I take away from it hope for the South that we are coming to grips with a legacy of racial issues and yet the townspeople of that town actually recognized and wanted to do the right thing but they just couldn’t do it. And yet the way this teacher was teaching it she was using the book as an example that we have still have racism and discrimination in Texas and America. …It was exactly in contravention to what I take out of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is we are making progress. We have an African-American president, we have many African Americans in a position of leadership.”

The townspeople “wanted to do the right thing but they just couldn’t do it.” In the book, a black man, Tom Robinson, is falsely accused of raping a white woman and is convicted by a jury despite Atticus Finch establishing that the accusers are liars. While a lynch mob fails to murder Robinson, he is later killed trying to escape prison. But, hey, they tried. Also: wrongfully convicting young black men of rape is so far in the past, just ask Tim Cole.

Finally, we leave you with Ted Cruz, who spoke today at a conference convened by his old employer, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and called President Obama “dangerous and terrifying,” in part, because his administration isn’t blocking legal dope smoking in Colorado and Washington State.

Support the Texas Observer
Texas Governor Rick Perry keynotes the Texas Public Policy Foundation's event at the Hilton Hotel in Austin, TX on January 10th, 2013
Gov. Rick Perry speaking at a TPPF summit.

What do you call a group of ideologues that collects millions from corporations and billionaires and then—through the alchemy of fuzzy math and Ayn Randian levels of free-market wishful thinking—churns out studies and policy papers used by politicians to justify miserly policies? Kick kids off health insurance? Here’s a white paper for that. Create confusion about climate science? Research paper! Propose tax cuts as a means to help West, Texas, recover from the fertilizer plant disaster? You bet. Derail Medicaid expansion that could insure millions and save an estimated 9,000 lives a year in Texas? Done.

I’d hardly call this organization a “think tank.” But that’s how the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) has been billing itself for many years, even as evidence grows that it’s less a think tank than in the tank.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a conservative policy shop. After all, TPPF has a liberal counterpart, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, that frequently takes opposing stances on issues. The Center for Too Many P’s, as it’s sometimes jokingly called, certainly has an agenda—albeit one that strikes me as considerably more concerned with the well-being of working-class Texans and much less hardline in its policy prescriptions. If anything, CPPP is wonky and nuanced to a fault, perhaps reflecting its staff’s public-policy school pedigrees.

But TPPF is a different animal. The organization got its start in 1989, bankrolled by San Antonio mega-donor James Leininger, who sought intellectual support for his school-reform ideas, which included public school vouchers. TPPF floundered in relative obscurity for years, operating out of a warehouse in San Antonio with two employees. Relocating to Austin, nearer the political and lobby nerve center, helped boost the foundation. So did new leadership and friendly relationships with rising Republican stars like Rick Perry, Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz. But TPPF’s emergence as a place for mainstreaming fringe ideas couldn’t have happened without a funding formula. As the Observer reported last year, the group’s ever-growing budget—$5.5 million in 2011—is flush with donations from the likes of the Koch brothers, ExxonMobil, Altria (tobacco), Geo Group (private prisons) and dozens of other corporations, interest groups, right-wing foundations and wealthy businessmen with an agenda to promote.

Establishing a strict quid pro quo between the funding and the policy is difficult, of course, but TPPF’s policy papers and ideological positions often meld with the interests of its client-donors. That curious synchronicity suggests that this think tank may be less ideological than customer service-orienteda point underscored by reporting the Observer and The Guardian did in December. In an application to a large conservative foundation, TPPF bragged about its ability to provide an “intellectual foundation” for attacks on Medicaid. TPPF boasted of numerous meetings with Rick Perry’s staff and of convincing Sen. John Cornyn and a pair of Texas congressmen to “champion” legislation that would allow Texas to “block grant” (read: partially privatize) the state’s Medicaid program. Exaggeration is a feature of grant writing, and TPPF is no doubt inflating its influence a bit. But the documents still show TPPF’s reach and its main selling point: that it puts a veneer of respectability on otherwise fringe ideas. But any notion that TPPF operates with intellectual integrity is belied by the documents, too. In its grant request, TPPF seeks $40,000 from the funders to “prove” that its Medicaid proposal will work. Not to test it, or subject it to different assumptions, but rather to reach a predetermined conclusion. That’s the definition of reverse-engineering. And it is considered unethical in journalism, academia and intellectual pursuits.

TPPF is just one of scores of state-level think tanks that have cropped up in state capitals over the past decade. They receive only a tiny fraction of the media attention that marquee, Washington, D.C.-based organizations like the Heritage Foundation do. But in their way, the state groups are more influential. Very little happens in Congress these days anyway. The action on critical issues has shifted to statehouses where the TPPFs of the nation have outsized sway. But there’s nothing intellectual or thoughtful about what they do. It’s time to stop pretending otherwise.

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